California Zephyr
July 10 and 11


Jan and I decided to treat the grandkids to an Amtrak ride this summer. We purchased coach fares for the two of us on No. 5 from Mt. Pleasant to Osceola on Saturday, and for ourselves, our daughter and son in law, and the two grandchildren in the opposite direction on Sunday. $66 one way, $165 the other.

On Saturday Jan and I left Indianola right after lunch and drove the Jeep and daughter Sarah's van down to Osceola. At Osceola we dropped off the Jeep and headed east along Hwy. 34 for some train-watching. Our train ride back to Osceola wasn't due out of Mt. Pleasant until 7:34, so we had plenty of time to stop and take pictures. We were running just behind a coal load, and stopped in Chariton, but apparently just missed it. Out under the highway bridge at the east end of town we were stopped by a man in a blue pickup who introduced himself as Max Bauer. Max had browsed the web site and I'd corresponded with him by email about scanners.

We hurried on east and got to the overpass near Halpin just as our load (UCEX cars) was starting up the hill at Albia. I went into town and parked near an overpass to get some pictures. At about 2:15, BNSF 9784 and 9954 ground into view and came under the road. I hustled to the end of the bridge, crossed, and went back out onto the sidewalk on the east side to get my RDA of diesel exhaust as the two MACs dragged 12,000 tons of coal up the grade.

Our next stop was at the IMRL/BNSF diamond in Ottumwa. At 3:15, the same train we'd seen in Albia appeared. The next train across was a set of engines that had taken one cut of a BN coal load up the hill to Rutledge. They headed back to the IMRL yard at 3:20. After a few minutes they came by us again, now eastbound, with a set of MPWX cars. The power consisted of BN 7154, BNSF 5182 and BN 7207.

After watching the old power hustle by Lawler East to tackle Rutledge hill, we waited for one more train, arriving at 3:55. We'd heard the detector at MP 271 announce a westbound, which turned out to be a coal empty, BN 7289, SF 8166 and BN 7286 with DETX hoppers and a set of five fuel tanks cut in behind the power.

We got to the Mt. Pleasant depot around 5:00. An older gentleman was sitting on one of the benches outside and a railfan, "Dale", from Fort Dodge was sitting in his pickup a block west of the depot. As I was visiting with Dale, the detector east of town announced a train. This turned out to be a set of CEPX empties behind BNSF 9728 and BN 9612. They came through at 5:20, just as a cloud blocked the sun, naturally!

Jan and I went to get some supper and returned to the depot just in time to see the tail end of a coal load. According to her notes it was probably BN 9650. They were followed closely, at 6:13, by a manifest, mostly grain cars, behind BNSF 4372, BN 7843 and BNSF 8724. After supper, Jan inspected the ramp beside the house track across the street east of the depot.

The depot in Mt. Pleasant seems to be a gathering place for locals. In addition to a few passengers, a number of people seemed to be at the depot just to see Amtrak come through. More and more of them kept arriving, some bringing lawn chairs to set up in the shade of a laundromat north across the tracks, others occupying the benches in front of the station.

After I told the agent of our plan to leave the van in Mt. Pleasant and ride back with the family the next day, he told us that No. 6 was alreay over three hours down. We'd been checking on the train's progress since it's sailing on Friday noon (our time) and already knew that it wasn't doing very well.

Another eastbound, an IPWX load, came through at 6:55. On the point were BN 9437 and BNSF 9833. Preparations for the passenger train were well underway as they rolled by the depot and headed east under the Hwy. 218 overpass.

BN usually clears the rails well ahead of Amtrak but tonight, at 7:20, we had a westbound coal empty. The sound of its horns caused great consternation in the gallery watching from their chairs across the tracks north of the depot. "Amtrak's coming, you'd better get people over here!", someone yelled. From inside the depot, I'd heard the detector announce a train on Main 1 with 510 axles and had walked outside to get a picture. The station agent, who'd also heard the detector, was assuring the crowd that it couldn't be Amtrak.

The train had new-looking JE hoppers and was pulled by three orange ones, BNSF 9943, 8832 and 8890. They poured on the fuel as the cars trailed west out of town and my friend recorded the details.

Passengers on the platform wanted to know how we knew the axle count and that the train wasn't Amtrak before we could see it (Actually, you could tell from the horns it wasn't Amtrak!) One of them had tried to count the cars, so Jan and I presented an impromptu lesson on talking detectors and passenger train lengths, "...there were three engines, each with 6 axles, leaving 492; divide by 4 to get 123 cars." "Amtrak will have fewer than 100 axles."

The California Zephyr arrived at 7:39. In tonight's train:

Locos 88, 72 and 334
Material Car 1466
Baggage Car 1003
Transition Sleeper 39042
Sleepers 32037, 32007 (California), and 32028
Dining Car 38046
Sightseer Lounge 33033
Coaches 31511 (Smoking), 34036, 34055 and 34063
Boxcars 70023, 70038 and 71123
Express Baggage 1710
(I got the rear end stuff later)
The train made two spots, one for sleepers and one for coach. We were put on the Smoking coach, assured by the attendant that you'd not be able to smell it upstairs. I noticed in passing that the smoking area, created from the lower-level baggage area of a "Coach-Baggage" Superliner, had a hand-lettered sign prohibiting food and drink from the lounge. By 7:47 we were in our seats and rolling back toward Osceola.

Seats in the Superliner coaches appear identical to those of an airliner, with one very important difference, there's plenty of room between them. Although the two experiences are completly different, I love the physical sensations of departing in both planes and trains. The rail experience is so subtle and quiet, I keep my eyes on a point of reference outside the window to detect the very first motion of the car.

We rode for awhile in the coach, but soon made our way forward to the Sightseer Lounge and spent most of the trip there. The BNSF line alternated between a few relatively smooth sections and a number of very rough spots. People walking through the train (there seemed to be quite a bit of pedestrian traffic) had trouble navigating as the lounge frequently lurched from side to side. Both of us thought that the ride of the coach was noticably smoother than that of the lounge car.

The lounge attendant apologized for neglecting to pick up a movie and asked if anyone aboard had one they might want to share one of their own to show on the monitors in the lounge. None was forthcoming while we were on the train. I rotated the lounge seat so we faced southwest, listened to the scanner for the trackside detectors announcing our passing and to the dispatcher making way for us down the line, and enjoyed the ride. Along the way:

7:50 - EB Coal
7:53 - EB Local (Work train?)
8:20 - EB Coal
8:28 to 8:33 - Stop in Ottumwa
8:35 - EB Coal
8:45 - EB Coal
9:00 - Maxon to Halpin, crossed over to Main 2, passed BNSF 9943 (above)
9:40 - EB Coal
We were off the train at 9:49 in Osceola, 127 miles, 2 hours and 2 minutes after departing Mt. Pleasant. Station attendant Pat Green had recognized the Jeep in the Osceola depot parking lot during the day and wondered where we were. We explained the plan for tomorrow and were told again how late the train was running.


Sunday came up bright and cool, with the neighborhood dogs going nuts over the balloons floating above our backyard. I called 1-800-USA-RAIL and was told that the train was 3 hours and 18 minutes late, but that some time might be made up between Lincoln and Omaha and that I should call back later. I called my daughter and we made a plan to go down to Osceola mid-morning and have a picnic across from the station while we waited.

I went to the basement and brought up some models so that, before we left for Osceola, I could explain to the grandkids how the train was made up and what it would be like on the train, that we'd be going up a stairway and walking between cars, and going very fast and such. Jan taught me that kids behave better when they know ahead of time what to expect and what is expected of them.

Just after 10:00 we piled all six in the Jeep, along with the fixings for a picnic and essentials for entertaining the kids, and headed for Osceola. Things were fairly quiet along the BNSF line this morning, but at 11:02 we had an empty come through. On the point were BNSF 9833 and BN 9437. The numbers seemed familiar, and when Jan checked her notes, it turned out to be the same IPWX train we'd seen (loaded) in Mt. Pleasant on Saturday evening!

We had our picnic lunch and packed things in the Jeep. I heard Amtrak report out of Creston at 11:27. The kids played around the depot, with mother reminding them every so often that they were not to play in the coal dust that accumulates in all the corners of the platform.

No. 6 appeared just as the noon whistle was blowing in Osceola, a little over three hours late. In today's consist:

GEnesis units 34 and 73
Baggage Car 1223
Transition Sleeper 39027
Sleeping Cars 32056, 32013 and 32070 (Alabama)
Dining Car 38037
Sightseer Lounge 33007
Coaches 31527 (Smoking) 34005, 34087 and 34062
Material Car 1425
Express Car 1708
Short on provisions, the dining car personnel had ordered out, and Pat Green delivered.

One attendant started helping Jan onto the train while another one blocked her way, ordering her to "Let go of the train". After the train was securely positioned, Jan was helped on a second time. The train was crowded and we were boarded onto a lower level of one of the rear coaches. The only place in the train with six seats more-or-less together was in this "accessible" lower level. After we got moving, they began calling passengers for lunch, so I led my group forward several cars to grab seats in the lounge as they were vacated by diners.

My granddaughter braved the passageways between the cars, although admitting later that it was, "a little scary". When she was later debriefed about the trip, she said that she'd also worried that the television sets might fall from the shelves in the lounge car. It was my son-in-law's first passenger train ride, too and he was amazed at the rather violent-looking motions between the adjacent cars. As I thought about this it made me wonder if this motion is worse on high-level cars than on conventional ones. Seems like it might be so.

Ellen, who's just turned 4, and Will, 2 1/2, gradually got used to being alternately slammed against the window and thrown into the aisleway of the Sightseer Lounge as we sped through Lucas and up into Chariton. I'm making it sound worse than it actually was. After the kids got their "sea legs" they had a very fine time and really enjoyed the view of things like roads overhead through the wrap-around windows of the lounge car.

We met an empty just outside of Osceola and another waited at the bottom of the hill at Halpin, complaining on the radio about not getting a signal. At the top of Albia hill, we stopped at (new) Maxon so that the engineer could copy a warrant to go on down the line. The stopping point is right in the middle of a location where the BNSF had a major derailment, so the view while sitting there is of twisted and broken coal hoppers. This elicited lots of comments from the passengers as well as some questions from my grandkids.

We made our stop in Ottumwa from 1:28 to 1:34. The warrant that came aboard with the outbound engineer apparently had a wrong engine number, so a new one was made by radio before we departed. With only one soul on the engine these days, warrants can only be copied with the train stopped.

The rest of the trip into Mt. Pleasant was uneventful. Outside of Ottumwa, the winner of the "Trivia Contest" was announced and we learned that there were 281 passengers aboard the train. I'm not certain at what point along the trip this was measured or if we six short-haul fares were counted.

After finding another Mt. Pleasant fare in the car right behind the lounge, I cornered one of the attendants to ask if it would be okay for us to get off of that coach instead of having to go all the way back to our basement quarters in the rear of the train. I was told twice that we couldn't get off from the lounge car. "I know we can't get off of the lounge car, I'm asking if we can get off of this car." After repeated assurances that we did not leave anything back there, I secured permission to not have to navigate all the wildly oscillating doorways again.

Two spots were made in Mt. Pleasant. We were on the platform at 2:19 and the train rolled on eastward at 2:21. As we loaded the van, I noticed a railfan taking pictures from the old loading ramp east of the depot. We'd originally planned to make a visit to the museum in Mt. Pleasant, but the grandchildren had been kept awake well into their normal nap time, so we just hit the road for Osceola. We made a quick trip, arriving back to pick up the Jeep at 5:00.

That's It!